Mega Man (NES) Review

Click here if you wish to visit the Mega Man description page for screenshots and more information.

Review by tankMage (April 2016)

Score: B-  **Notice** This score has been altered to better reflect my opinion on this title after careful consideration. Mega Man was initially given an “A-” which was too generous considering the number of obvious bugs that I encountered and it’s short play length. 

   Today it’s easy to take the concept of picking from a selection of stages and using the weapons granted to the player for beating the boss of each stage to progress for granted, but this idea was once revolutionary. In fact, the open gameplay of Mega Man was later copied by games like Eight Eyes and Whomp ‘Em and helped demonstrate that games which broke the mold could be successful. Ironically the very franchise that reinvented a genre would later be criticized for being repetitive. Having said that, the first game in the series is something of a diamond in the rough, even though it happens to be one of my favorites. There are a few minor issues with the title that include some very noticeable bugs and balance issues that made the game feel rushed and not as finely crafted as some of it’s descendants. Much like Dr. Light’s first creation, Proto Man, the original Mega Man game is flawed, but awesome; let’s take a closer look at why…

Graphics

The series’ signature visual style makes it debut here, along with the Blue Bomber himself. The entire game has a bright, cartoonish feel that will be incorporated in later games, even on systems like the Sony PlayStation and SNES.

megaman1_11
megaman1_16
megaman1_13

Above: Mega Man’s colors change depending upon what weapon he is using.

    In a moment of sheer inspiration, the designers opted to use the Nintendo Entertainment System’s modest graphical capabilities to their fullest by creating a simple blue sprite that looked like a helmeted youth in blue super hero tights, which would soon become one of the most iconic video game characters in history. Mega Man’s foes, the robot masters, also have a similar comic book look, especially Cutman, Elecman and Gutsman. Not only are the character designs original, but each area of the game has it’s own unique look. Some areas even imply that the robot masters are wreaking havoc in the zones they occupy; Iceman’s stage appears to be a jungle that has been frozen over, while Gutsman’s stage is an industrial site gone mad, complete with dangerous pits, damaged lifts, and berserk mining bots.

    Mega Man’s sprite has several color schemes that are dependent upon which weapon he has equipped. Weapon energy tanks and extra lives even change colors to reflect Mega Man’s current palette, which is a nice detail. One should keep in mind that this title appeared in late 1987, which was relatively early in the lifespan of the NES. Consequently, the game doesn’t push the system to it’s visual limits, even if it does look good.

Story

   There’s not much exposition in this, the first installment of the Mega Man series and what the North American audience was told in the manual was a bastardization of the original Japanese story. In fact even the protagonist’s name was changed from Rock Man to Mega Man in an effort to make the title appear more serious and subsequently more desirable to a western audience according to the Mega Man Wiki. While I’m a stickler for accuracy, changing the name may have been a wise move considering the success of the franchise. At any rate, despite the liberties that were taken with the plot, the core idea behind the story was, for the most part, preserved.

   The backstory of  Mega Man is about a brilliant engineer by the name of Thomas Light who designed a series of semi-autonomous androids (say that one five times fast) to do jobs that were too dangerous for humans. We know these machines as Rock (or Mega Man, if you so please), Roll (Rock’s sister), and the six robot masters: Cut Man, Elec Man, Bomb Man, Guts Man, Ice Man, and Fire Man. Everything was roses until Dr. Wiley reprogrammed six of the robots and used them to conquer the earth. Dr. Light elected to outfit his robotic lab assistant, Mega Man, with armor and a special arm cannon that can copy the abilities of the robot masters in order to counter Wiley’s rampage. The newly upgraded Mega Man then sets out to save the world from the nefarious Wiley.

   While the story may be superficially simple, it deals with questions about the misuse of technology, specifically robotics, that we are beginning to ask ourselves now that androids are becoming less the stuff of science fiction and more of a reality. Even this early in the the series we also see that Mega Man has a soft almost human side under his armor and helm. So while, the plot is not terribly complex, it does have some nuance and sets the stage for an epic saga that spans dozens of games.

User Interface

    The UI is nearly perfect. Button inputs register immediately, jumping is tight and Mega Man can even switch directions in mid air. Also, the weapon menu is laid out in a basic, easily accessible manner so the player can change weapons quickly. The only problem with the UI is that the player must wait for the projectile fired from a special weapon to vanish or hit something before switching to another one, but this is understandable, since it was most likely done to prevent exploits or keep the game from glitching out.

Sound

   The music for this game is superb, and fittingly so, since it was originally called Rock Man. Each of the first six stages have their own theme, many of which are inspired by classic rock songs. While some may criticize the derivative nature of MM1’s sound track, I think the fact that the composer was able to take music made using real instruments and manipulate the NES’s puny sound processor in such a way that these songs are not only recognizable but sound good is a testament to her skill. Mega Man’s sound effects are also quite impressive and have become iconic in their own right. From the plunking sound the mega buster makes when fired to the catastrophic zap produced when you die, MM1 set a new standard for video game sound effects and creativity that has rarely been challenged, let alone surpassed.

Gameplay

   Giving players the ability to do six different stages in any order was a bold and innovative move. Rewarding the player with a new weapon that was generally more powerful and extra effective on particular foes was an even more brilliant move. New ideas often present new challenges for both players and developers, so unforeseen problems are bound to arise. As clever as Mega Man maybe, it is in many ways a prototype and as such has a few glitches and design issues.

megaman1_17
Truly, the Yellow Devil is a glorious foe.

   For starters there are issues with boss balance. Many bosses are destroyed after just a few hits from the weapon they are weak against and one in particular crumples up like a paper cup in a fist after two hits. While part of the gimmick was figuring out what to fight each robot master with, the battles are ridiculously easy if you know what weapon to use (let’s face most of us are going to look the boss order up online) and do not prepare the player for the rest of the game. Once you get to Wiley’s fortress life gets a bit tougher. The infamous Yellow Devil in the first stage takes several shots with the correct weapon (and even more with the wrong weapon) to kill and has a complex pattern. The rest of the final lineup of bosses are not as lethal, but still require some skill to defeat, unlike many of the robot masters. Unfortunately many games in the series struggle with this issue, perhaps because, their is a fine line between a flaw in an enemy’s defense and a lethal defect. Either way, the boss fights feel inconsistent, even throughout the final stages.

   Level design was also highly simplistic and erratic. Some levels were very short, while others were relatively massive. There also was not much to see or do in these levels aside from push forward, since Mega Man lacks easter eggs and even enemies tend to be sparse. A number of bugs also plague this game. The are two scenarios where Mega Man must cross a chasm by jumping onto flying turrets known as Footholders. If you get hit while trying to jump on a Footholder, there’s a good chance Mega Man will fall straight through it. Additionally, Footholders follow a semi random path and may stay out of reach for long periods of time, which is quite irritating and even deadly in some instances. The good news is there is an item that allows you to bypass these areas, but you may not have it the first time you encounter Footholders and it requires energy to use.

megaman1_14

   Guts Man’s weapon (which allows you to lift special blocks) is also a bit buggy, since grabbing a block does not always result in the object despawning, which in some cases is beneficial, while in others you end up wasting weapon energy trying to get past obstacles. There is also a bug in the third level of Wiley’s fortress that causes an extra wave of glitched out enemies to spawn, making life tougher for the player in the process. The last of the bugs is the famous boss life drain glitch that allows players to bypass a boss’s invincibility timer after it’s been hit by pausing the game (it’s probably one of the last harmful bugs, since it requires action on the part of the player) and get extra shots in on the boss for free.

   So if you are still reading this after I’ve spent several paragraphs upbraiding a beloved classic, we will now move onto the good aspects of this title (of which there are many). Firstly, there are many ways to approach the boss order, some being harder than others, and simply figuring out what weapon to use can be a fun and interesting challenge if you choose not to look up each robot master’s weakness. You can even replay previously completed stages and experiment with different tactics.  Speaking of weapons, there are six of them aside from the initial arm cannon and each weapon looks, sounds and behaves differently. Some of the weapons even take a bit of skill and practice to master and all of them have unique visuals and sound effects. Weapons like the super arm and ice slasher can have an effect on the terrain or enemies when used, which enhances the gameplay experience greatly and sets Mega Man apart from its peers.

   While bosses are poorly balanced in some regards, there are a few that are tough and require skill and practice to beat, as a result victory over them is quite gratifying. In fact MM1 is one of the most difficult games in the NES portion of the series, since there are no “E tanks” (which refill life) nor is there a password system, not to mention the infamous Yellow Devil boss. Players looking for a bit of a challenge may appreciate some of the tougher bosses and stripped down mechanics of the first title in the series.

Final Thoughts

   There is something timeless about this game and I personally consider it a classic despite all of it’s shortcomings. I was at least fifteen when I first played MM1; by that time the NES had been obsolete for a third of my lifetime and yet MM1 still proved to be a worthy title. Even today Mega Man plays like a game that is divinely inspired despite its bugs and balance issues. More importantly, MM1 set the template for not only some of the greatest games ever created, but one of the most venerable series in the industry. Calling this title a diamond in the rough was an error on my part and it would be better to refer to it as the spark that ignited an eternal flame.

Recommendations

    Mega Man is one of those games that every gamer should at least try. Later games in the series are more coherently realized, but this is where it all started. Having said that, players looking for an easy Mega Man game or one with a lot of content should probably check out some of the later installments and come back to this afterwards. It’s also one of the most expensive games in the franchise if you are in the market for an original cartridge, so it’s best to pick up a digital copy of this game unless you are a serious collector.

Nostalgia Time…

    This game was the crown jewel in my collection and one of my favorite titles, so it was a bit difficult for me to look at it objectively rather than just slap an A+ on the game simply because, it’s Mega Man. Oddly enough the box art turned me off from it as a child and I didn’t consider the series until reading about it in Nintendo Power at the age of ten. Even then I ended up starting with MM6 and playing the series in reverse order. Consequently Mega Man 1 was the last of the classic Mega Man games that I played and I didn’t get it until Christmas of 1997. Back then it cost a whopping thirty three bucks at Funcoland and it was worth every penny, so thanks Grandma, this one’s for you.

Leave a Comment